On 14 MAY 2019, The plain of jars in Phonsavan, Xieng Khuang is recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage Site after the waiting period of 20 years.
This is the third heritage site of Laos including Luang Prabang – the ancient capital of Lane Xang Kingdom, and the ruin of Wat Phou in Champasak.
This article is to give you more information on the plain of jars (the myth, the local legends, and the scientific exploration), and its home, the town of Phonsavan and Xieng Khuang province.
First of all, please check the below map of Phonsavan and surrounding to have the general idea of the area.
Check out the Top 10 Places to visit in Laos including Phonsavan
The plain of jars - The mysteries still remain!
The Plain of Jars is a collection of large stone jars interspersed throughout the Xieng Khouang plain in the Lao Highlands. The stone structures are mostly made of sedimentary rock and, ranging from 3 to 10 feet in height (1 to 3 meters), each can weigh up to 14 tons.
To date, the origin of the jars is unknown, though archaeologists believe that they were originally used between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago. Many researchers have theorized that the jars may have once served as funerals urns or food storage.
As local Laotian legend would have it, the jars were created by Khun Cheung, an ancient king of giants who lived in the highlands. It is said that Cheung, after fighting a long and victorious battle, created the jars in order to brew huge amounts of celebratory lao lao rice wine.
The Plain of Jars received relatively little Western attention until the 1930s, when French archaeologist Madeleine Colani began surveying the area.
Though previous reports of the jars had cited the existence of goods such as carnelian beads, jewelry, and axes, the site was mostly looted by the time Colani arrived.
Despite this, Colani discovered a nearby cave housing human remains, such as burned bones and ash, leading her to believe that the jars were funeral urns for chieftains.
Colani excavated the artifacts, some of which dated to between 500 BC and 800 AD, and published her findings in The Megaliths of Upper Laos.
Though the Xieng Khouang plain remains the central site of the jars, similar clusters can be connected to form a linear path all the way to northern India.
The existence of similar jar clusters in other parts of Asia also led to the belief that the jars were part of a large trade route.
Some researchers believe that the jars collected monsoon rainwater for caravan travelers to use during dry season. Travelers would use the water and then leave behind prayer beads or offerings in the jars, thus explaining previous sightings of jewelry and assorted goods.
Though the caretakers for the Plain of Jars are applying for status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the area still remains one of the most dangerous archaeological sites in the world.
Thousands of unexploded bombs remain from the Secret War of the 1960s, and some of these arms still cause injuries to this day.
As such, only Sites 1, 2, 3 and the Quarry are open to visitors, while a number of organizations work to remove explosives and apply for more funding.
Any visit to the jar sites takes one past numerous large bomb craters and crater clusters.
Further adding to the area’s mystique, the many varied casings of these American bombs are used extensively to decorate houses and roadsides in nearby of Phonsavan, the provincial capital.
Scrap metal collection is one of the major economic activities here.
Researchers have traced the jars back to a quarry a few miles outside of Phonsavan.
The area was also used extensively during the war by the Pathet Laos (Lao Nation, the communist political movement) who hid in natural and human-made caves here in the quarry.
How to get to Phonsavan - Plain of jars
You can get to Phonsavan with the daily domestic flight from Vientiane. The ticket price ranges from $65 to $90/person/way.
Recently, Lao Skyway offers the flight from Luang Prabang directly to Phonsavan. But it seems unstable depending on the number of the passengers booking for that. Please check the flight schedule carefully.
The airport locates just 5 km out of town. The transfer into town will take about 15 minutes and less than $10 for the taxi.
A local bus from Vientiane will cost 120,000 Kip and a VIP bus is 150,000; both take 10-12 hours. Buses from Luang Prabang will cost around 100,000 Kip and take 8 hours, while minibuses will make the trip in 6 and cost a bit more.
A minibus from Vang Vieng will cost 110,000 Kip and take 7-8 hours. Coming from Xam Neua, you will pay around 100,000 and spend 8 hours on the bus.
For the schedule, please check with rome2rio.
The main tourist strip is easy to get around on foot, and tuk tuk can be found along there as well. Guesthouses and travel agencies rent Chinese-brand motorbikes for around 120,000 kip a day.
Best time to visit Phonsavan - Plain of jars
The best time to visit Phonsavan is during the dry season from November to March, but due to the higher altitude (1100m), the hot season from March to May isn’t nearly as uncomfortable as in lower-lying areas.
The wet season runs from May to October and the rains can make traveling to some of the jar sites and other rural destinations difficult, if not impossible.
14 Things to do & see in Phonsavan - Plain of Jars
Phonsavan is most famous for its mysterious plain of jars, of which the sites no. 1, 2 & 3 are very popular with the visitors to the area.
Actually, Phonsavan has much more to offer to the tourist including the colorful village, amazing waterfalls, and never-fading history.
Let’s check the below Google Maps for more detail:
Plain of jars site 1 & visitor center
Jar site 1 or Tong Hai Hin is the most popular site, located 8 km southwest of Phonsavanh and by easily reached by tuk tuk or bike. Follow Rt 10 southwest, turn right the sight Ban Na-O and dive for another 2 kilometer.
Alternatively book a package tour at any of the local tour companies Yhe site counts 331 jars, including the largest single jar-side to have been the victory cup of the King Khoun Chueang.
According to local legend the Lao King Khoun Chueang (AD 6th century) fought a long battle against his enemy and liberated the local people from the oppressive ruler.
The Jars were carved to brew and store huge amounts of Lao Lao which were drunk in the 7 month lasting celebration held in honor of victory.
Jars site 1 was of military strategic important during the second Indochina War. Trenches and foxholes, anti-air-craft positions and tank scrape can be found on the two raised areas and on top of the cave.
Several bomb craters and damaged or displaced jar are a testimony to heavy fighting in this area.
A part from a plain of jars, visitor also can visit the sophisticated “War Museum” which was recently built.
Ticket for Site 1 is LAK 15000 (May 2019, roughly $2) and includes entry to the visitor center.
Plain of jars site 2 & 3
Jar site 2 or Hai Hin Phu Salato is locate about 20 km southwest of Phonsavanh. The site contains 93 jars spread across two adjacent hills.
From the parking area, walk up the stairs on your left to the first group. A small plundered stupa can be visited future east on the hill.
On the hill to the west a stone disc with an animal relief, possibly a frog can be found. Bomb craters surround the site and several of the stone jars show the impact of ground battles.
Jar Site 3 or Hai Hin Lat Khai is made up of 8 groups and is located around the village of Ban Xieng Di, around 10 km further south of site 02 The main group with some 150 jars situated on top of a scenic hill which offers great views of the surrounding plain and rice paddies.
To get to the main groups cross the bridge after paying the entrance fee of continue along the rice field dykes to the lower foothill of the mountain, where a marked path picks up the trail to the site.
The village has a small Buddhist Temple near the entrance booth where visions are welcome. The small restaurant near the ticket booth serves drinks and noodle soup and is run by a local family.
A portion of the restaurant profit goes to the Village Fund which the benefits the entire community. The travel agencies in town offer to Jar site 2 3 often combined with a visit of Khoun Dist.
Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site
Could this be the source of the jars? At least that’s what quarries are generally defined as.
Whether the source or not, scaling up 1000 steps to a hidden mountain passageway drilled through its rocky summit is a hardy climb that rewards the most adventurous with a mountain views of the tiered rice paddies below.
The Phu Kheng Jar Quarry Site also played a strategic role for Lao revolutionary forces during the Indochina War.
The climb can be steep especially towards the end but there are plenty rest spots throughout the climb.
To get there, ride along Route 7 west of Phonsavan for 13km and turn left at the sign which says Phu Kheng Jar Quarry site. It is another 7km of compact dirt road to the entrance.
Tham Pra & Nong Tang Lake
Going about 48km west of Phonsavan on Route 7 brings you to the town of Nong Tang where you can visit the 15th century ruins of Wat Mixay, Wat Ban Ang and the Ban Mong Stupa.
Nearby, you’ll find the peaceful Nong Tang Lake – namesake of the town – backed by soaring limestone karsts. The waterside noodle shop is a good place for a quick bite and cold drink.
The highlight of this area is the Tham Pra Cave Complex that houses hundreds of Buddha images. Tham Pra also means Buddha Cave and it’s obvious why it’s so-called when you are greeted by a large sitting Buddha – alleged to be 1200 years old – at the entrance.
Like an underground limestone maze, the cave expands into a web of rocky walkways that lead to numerous chambers filled with 19th century figurines of – what else – the Buddha.
Muang Khoun: The Old Phuan Kingdom
The region’s ancient capital, Muang Khoun (ເມືອງຄູນ) was ravaged in the 19th century by Chinese and Vietnamese invaders, then so heavily bombarded during the Second Indochina War that by 1975 it was almost completely abandoned.
However, a handful of aged monuments survived as ruins and the town slowly redeveloped, although it is very much a village in comparison to the new capital Phonsavan. It’s certainly not a must-see but might be worth the detour for those staying a few days in the region.
A good asphalt road from Phonsavan (30km north) passes through some attractive rice-terrace villages, several sporting Phuan-style houses built of sturdy timbers. Buying the Muang Khoun Visitor’s Ticket (10,000K; available at various sights in the area) supports ongoing maintenance efforts.
Tai Dam Cultural Hall
Ban Xieng Khieo is a designated Cultural Village about 48 km north of Phonsavan. There, you can learn more about the Tai Dam culture and lifestyle at the two-storey Tai Dam Cultural Hall.
You’ll get to check out a traditional Tai Dam bedroom with rows of thin mattresses decorated with patterned cotton sheets and blankets on rattan mats. Honestly, the rows of thin mattresses look like a massage parlour.
The Cultural Hall also exhibits farming tools, baskets for cooking and hunting, equipment for weaving and harvesting. Of course, like most ‘designated’ tourism spots, they sell finely decorated traditional skirts and scarves, wall hangings and shoulder bags.
Even though the whole place looks set-up for tourists, the main way to experience the culture is to walk about the village and interact with the locals and seeing the women weave textiles and men plait baskets.
Tham Piew Cave
Tham Piew cave is one of the tragedies of the Indochina War and stands as a solemn memorial to the 374 innocent villages that were killed by a single US missile attack in 1968. They were taking refuge in the cave when the shell hit the cave.
The information center and photographs share a little about the grim history behind the bombings and a statue of a man – straining to hold his anger – carrying a lifeless child calls for an ‘Annual Day of Remembrance’.
On the way up to the cave, you can offer incense and pay tribute to the dead at the shrine. Along the way are grave markets, bomb craters and a large golden Buddha.
Tad Kha Waterfall
There are apparently 2 Kha Waterfalls (Tad Kha) in the region, the popular one is at Nong Het district, near Khang Phanieng Village. This impressive waterfall is nestled in spectacular limestone karst cliffs and cascades in steps for more than 100 meters, alternating with steep falls.
The other Tad Kha is near Tajok village and also flows over several tiers. To reach there you’ll have to hike a jungle trail which winds its way up the waterfall crossing it several times. It’s a popular pinic spot for locals especially during the Lao New Year holidays.
Ban Xang Hot Spring
Located in the Kham district around 50km north of Phonsavan is a hot spring devoid of tourists.
But first, attempt a challenging 3-4 hour hike along the Mat river valley and up Xang Mountain to Plain of Jars Site 42. Then come back down to soak in the pools that are a mixture of the hot springs and cooler water from the Mat River, which results in the perfect temperature for a refreshing dip.
Napia Spoon Village
Near Jar Site 2, Ban Napia and surrounding villages have been producing spoons using the scrap metals from downed aircraft and shrapnel that litter the villages’ fields.
The creative villages have been recycling the war junk for over 30 years, feeding diners and fulfilling a supply shortage in nearby markets. Of course, you can also buy souvenirs made from the scrap metals to support the villagers.
Ban Phakeo Trek
If you like hiking, this one is for you. The Ban Phakeo trek is a 2-day trek that brings you to some of the most remote Hmong villages in Laos, letting you experience the locals’ mountain life, inspect war-time architecture and finally ending in an exclusive Plain of Jars Site – number 52.
Site 52 – also known as Ban Phakeo Jar site – features nearly 400 stone jars many of which are covered in grass and algae, adding a touch of green to the otherwise dull grey. This is also the only jar site with lids, and many stone discs with animal sculptures.
MAG UXO Information Center
Decades after America’s Secret War on Laos, unexploded bombs and mines remain a devastating problem throughout this region.
Visit the thought-provoking UXO Information Centre, run by British organisation MAG (Mines Advisory Group) that’s been helping to clear Laos’ unexploded ordnance since 1994.
The centre’s information displays underline the enormity of the bomb drops, and there are also examples of (defused) UXO to ponder.
Donations are encouraged: US$15 pays for the clearing of around 10 sq metres and a commemorative T-shirt.
Late-afternoon screenings show the powerful documentaries Bomb Harvest (4.30pm; www.redlampfilms.com/films-2/bomb-harvest-2), Surviving the Peace (5.50pm) and Bombies (6.30pm; www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/bombie.html).
Phonsavan fresh food market
This market stocks exotic fruits you won’t typically see elsewhere in Laos, such as Chinese pear. Other local delicacies include nok ąen dąwng (swallows stored whole in jars until they ferment) and hét wâi (wild matsutake mushrooms), which grow around Xieng Khuang and fetch high prices in Japan.
Best time to visit the market is around morning time from 06:00AM until 08:00AM
Hmong Sunday Market
In Phonsavan on a Sunday? The Hmong Sunday Market is in Ban Tajok (Tachok), 30 kilometres east on Route 7 in the direction of Muang Kham.
The market is a truly local market with a wild variety of vegetables and meat. The market starts from 4:00AM and finish at 7:00AM, which is not for those who can’t deal with early mornings.
Mulberries farm is, rather confusingly, actually a silk farm where you can learn all about how silk is made.
The farm will take you all the way through the process, from when the silk worms are still in cocoons, to the finished product in the form of gorgeous silk scarves.
If you want to get hands on then you can even attend classes that will fill you in on how to weave and dye beautiful pieces of silk.
What and where to eat in Phonavan
Although, Phonsavan does not have wide selection of restaurant or type of food to choose from. But for sure you still can find what you need in this small city.
Check out the Top 10 Laos dishes you must try
Lao Falang Restaurant – Western & local fusion food
Come to Lao-Falang Restaurant, you’ll never regret the moments of savoring the stunning Western and Laos foods as well as the great beer. While enjoying the desirable meals, you can view the valuable documentary shows on the big screens that tell you what occurred in the Phonsavan about 40 years ago. The bonuses for this restaurant are the foreign currency exchange service, and the transportation offer (mini-bus and motorbike) if requested.
Bamboozle Restaurant & Bar – International food
If you prefer dining in a laid-back vibe, just come to Bamboozle! The restaurant-and-bar zone has the great Western and Laos menu including the delicious mulberry pancakes, goat cheese, yogurt, baguettes, etc.
Since this place is usually packed, the ideal time to have dinner here is around 21:00, after the rush hours. Bamboozle is regarded as “the best burger in town” and stays open late; so, just come to evaluate its party service at night.
Add to this chilled beers and a rock-and-roll soundtrack and it’s a winner. A percentage of the profits goes towards the Lone Buffalo Foundation, which supports the town’s youth.
Cranky-T Café & Bar – Fusion local food
In contrast to the repetition of rice, tea and beer in northeastern Laos, Cranky T’s will satisfy cravings for bread, coffee and cocktails.
The modern cafe-bar wouldn’t be out of place in capital city Vientiane, so travellers can confidently order that macchiato, martini or Malbec.
The coffee is excellent, and a cup is included in the 45,000 kip all-day breakfast sets designed to get you going before jar-site-hopping.
If popping in for dinner (available from 17:00-21:00), have a fresh salad with chicken teriyaki or smoked salmon, 45,000-55,000 kip.
There’s indoor and outdoor seating, WiFi and a well stocked bar—this is a busy spot for a sun-downer or a night cap. Adjacent to Cranky T’s is an epicerie from the same owner, where travelers can self cater with drinks, snacks and cheese.
Nisha Restaurant – Indian food
Indian restaurants are scattered throughout northern Laos and Phonsavan has Nisha’s Indian.
It does the trick, it’s cheap and has a wide range of vegetarian options, like chana masala, aloo mutter and curry, all veg dishes for just 18,000 kip each.
Meat dishes like the flavourful chicken tikka masala are 30,000 kip, going well with the hot, fresh made naan.
Simmaly Restaurant – Local food
Serves up a tasty line of rice dishes, noodles and spicy meats, including steaming fĕr (rice noodles). The pork with ginger is lovely.
This restaurant is very popular amongst the fellow tourists, the expats, as well as the locals. With the excellently responsive service and high-quality fusion, Simmaly helps enrich the culinary picture in Phonsavan.
Getting inspired?! Check out the Top 10 Cooking Classes in Laos
Where to stay in Phonsavan
The town of Phonsavan has limited accommodation choice, mostly from budget to standard option only.
Kongkeo Guesthouse is very popular with backpackers, a good place to meet other travellers. The owner, Kong, has a great rapport with his guests. Rooms are spacious, clean and comfy. The place is within a short-walk from the market and several decent restaurants. Rooms start at $13 USD.
Pukyo is further out of town, but the owner does everything he can with a minivan to mean this doesn’t matter too much. It’s a whopping house, with whopping beds. As clean and comfortable as you could wish for. Pukyo has a wonderful reputation! Dorm beds cost $12 USD, while privates start around double that.
Anoulack Khen Lao Hotel: This is the mid-range hotel in Phonsavan that you cannot go wrong. Remarkably, this hotel owns the bar fridge, the very gentle bed, cable TV, free Wi-Fi in every room, etc., which attracts groups of tourists.
Plus, the onsite restaurant on the fifth floor serves you breakfast. You can also eat there at any time if pre-booking. Anoulack Khen Lao Hotel is the pleasant choice for a bit more comfort during your stay in Phonsavan.
Favanh Mai Hotel: Six-storey Favanh Mai delivers flash comforts and modern Lao hotel style. That means a lift, laminate wood flooring, purpose built dark wood furniture, large windows with dark curtains that do a good job blocking out light, a bed with soft, white cotton linens and bedside tables.
It is not the bad choice for 1-to-2-night stay.
Vansana Hotel Plain of Jars: This is the remarkable mountain hotel in Phonsavan, gaining fame for the decent outdoor pool, the Laos authentic restaurant and bar, free parking, free airport shuttle, and more.
Especially, it is the location of Vansana that sets it apart; from here, you can easily access the town’s famous sites namely Phonsavan Market, Plains of Jars, and Xiengkhouang Provincial Administration Offices.
Auberge de la Plaine des Jarres: The resort has a total of 15 comfortable rooms in bungalow-style houses in stone and wooden material. Each room has balcony, a living room and a chimney that gives a warm and unique atmosphere.
The rooms all have a private bathroom with toilet and hot water shower. The Deluxe rooms have Internet access. There is no need of Air Conditioning due to the high altitude and the winter may be very cold.
Phonsavan is one of the most heavily bombed locations in history and the surrounding area is still littered with unexploded ordinance.
Be very cautious when wandering around any rural areas—stay on the paths if at all possible and pay attention to these markers by the Mine Advisory Group (MAG), which mark the boundaries of a cleared area. The white side indicates the safe side.
Check any motorbike you rent very carefully to ensure it is in working order. Apparently there has been an increase in motorbike accidents due to faulty brakes or other equipment.
Also, take pictures of the motorbike’s condition in front of the person you are renting from, to avoid any false damage claims later on. If you do cause damage to a motorbike and the quoted repair cost from the rental place seems high, that’s because it is. You can save a lot of money by finding a mechanic on your own.
Do not hesitate to contact a local travel agency if you need further information